Thoughts on Medea of Euripides

I started out reading a different book this month but I just couldn’t get into the story. For me, there are works that are more seasonal and Moby Dick strikes me as a cold-weather read. I’ll revisit during the winter months and see if it’s a go.

So as a result, July almost crept by without an installment of my thoughts on a classical piece of literature. Ah, fear not…then I found Medea of Euripides.

The author of this story was a Greek dramatist named Euripides. He was quite the fellow, having written dozens and dozens of plays (somewhere around at least 90). Medea is one that survived the years intact. Lucky us. Since his work continues to be offered to modern audiences, one assumes it is yet timely. Frankly, I get annoyed with the tragedians. I’m all for dismal and terrible crap hitting the fan, but in the end, I want my happily-ever-after. The ancient Greeks weren’t into that sort of wrap-up.

Euripides, 4th century BC

You might remember Medea as the love interest of Jason from Jason and the Argonauts or Jason and the Golden Fleece (yes, most of my history was learned from Hollywood matinees). She’s a tough female. In various stories she’s been known to play hardball, having stabbed her own brother, thrown bits of disarticulated family at her opponents, and abandoned her father’s kingdom. She doesn’t disappoint here…going forward with several plans to heap suffering on Jason. His crime? He dumped Medea, the mother of his children, but a barbarian nonetheless, for a princess with bona fides.

Understandably, this does not set well with Medea. Even though I am not unsympathetic to her situation, I believe her reactions were more than a bit whackadoodle. Jason stops by to let her know he’s shacking up with the princess and Medea takes it badly. Cue up the volatile personality. Now Medea’s bitter that she left home to follow the conquering male in the short skirt. After all, she’s produced two vibrant sons for the man and still he’s tossed her aside to go social-climbing with the socially approved tramp. On top of everything else, Medea’s surrounded by a country of people who consider her a barbarian and being from the separate kingdom of Colchis her relationship with Jason will never be accepted.

I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that all of those justifications are beside the point because Medea does not appear to have a single soft and fuzzy facet. She goes on to use her own children to deliver poisoned objects to her perceived enemies. Then she kills her kids to make Jason suffer some more, swiping the bodies away so he can’t even bury his sons where he prefers. No matter what the environment, the lifestyle, the time period…the woman’s behavior is just psycho.

This story still resonates with audiences today. Some people see Medea as a sort of anti-hero, succumbing to her own weaknesses as she faces the towering authority of society. Okay, I guess I can see that, if you’re into that sort of interpretation. The ancient Greeks were pretty clear they wouldn’t have bought that argument, but whatever. Post-modern discourse finds new connections in older works all the time.

I think Medea of Euripides still gets us talking because the story makes us consider how far might we go, if pressed. What would it take to make us snap? How do we know where the lines of our own boundaries exist, unless they’re tested? I don’t think I’d resort to any of the bloody responses Medea selected, but she and I occupy different places and times. Assuming a public role in a ruling family has a history of dire actions. People have dropped like rocks in a pond, splashing right and left, especially if they stood in the line of accession. Several European countries specialized in this sort of strategizing for quite a few centuries.

As Greek tragedies go, this one is up there with the highest eschelon…which means everybody pretty much gets screwed. There is no happy ending. Really, who needs all these complications of power and authority, deceit and betrayal, revenge and retribution? Ancient Greece must have been a pretty bipolar place and the preponderance of tragedy explains why they were equally obsessed with comedy. That essential balance of laughter and tears, smiles and grimaces, remains forever emblazoned on every thespian’s wall art.

Interestingly, the story of Medea (and by default, Jason), has changed over time. Earlier versions of the story do not vilify her as killing her own children. Instead the boys were dispatched by those villainous Corinthians. I don’t know who the Corinthians were either, except they’re credited for those nifty columns. I’m left to wonder what political feelings were swirling around Greece back in the 4th century BC and if public pressures embraced the idea of Medea-as-Evil or if she served as a literary device Euripides used to shock his viewers? Since public competitions between tragic levels of content and performance between playwrights were a regular form of entertainment to the populous, that might have had something to do with it too.

Like most translations, there is room to quibble over interpretations but one time through the poetry was enough for me. I also chose a volume that kept notes and thoughts to a minimum so I could concentrate on Euripides work.

Don’t you want to check out Medea of Euripides? I’d like to know what you think. Tell me if you think she was a narcissistic psychotic whacko or a woman pushed beyond her ability to cope with the disappointments of her life. I know which way I’m leaning.

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  1. #1 by Fanda on July 30, 2012 - 6:14 pm

    The only Greek play I have read is Oedipus by Sophocles, and I quite like it. About the language, do you think Euripides’ is tougher or lighter, compared to Shakespeare?

    • #2 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on July 30, 2012 - 9:33 pm

      I liked Oedipus too. As far as the language goes, I think Euripides (and all the Greek writings) can be tougher reads because the translations vary so much. Several editions I looked at had so much “interpretation” that the actual writing got lost somewhere. Shakespeare has a few unfamiliar words and archaic language forms but it’s easier for me to read because it’s still English. If I could read Euripides in the original Greek I might feel different. =)

  2. #3 by Ali Dent on July 31, 2012 - 2:22 am

    What a great post. I like it that you made some connections for me. I had no idea that Jason and the Agonauts and Jason and the Golden Fleece were re same story. Those books were on the reading list for my younger children a few years ago.

    I also like this post because you teach me about what a tragedy is. When I first began facilitating literature clubs I knew nothing. Posts like yours played a huge role in my education. It’s been 10 years since then and I’m still learning thanks to writer’s like you.

    • #4 by Leslie Berry/ @LesannBerry on July 31, 2012 - 12:09 pm

      Thanks Ali! I’m enjoying the challenge. It’s the perfect incentive to dive into reading a story I might otherwise not spend the time getting to know. I’m pleased you found something of value in my commentary. I liked the story but it was a sad end for Medea. Jason really dug having her around when her badassness was convenient, but once he went home she was a bit too tough for the genteel masses. I’d love to know what the people at the time thought about the play.

      I would imagine a background in theatrical production provides a completely different context for classics like these which were intended to be performed. My experience in theater was always behind the scenes, so I’m no good there. It’s always very helpful for me to read a variety of reactions, both formal and informal – everyone brings something slightly different to the story, in terms of their personal experience and sometimes just the right analogy makes sense out of the entire thing.

      Now I have to figure out what to read next…Ivanhoe, anyone?

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